I’m the sort of person who frequently feels obligated to others, whether they explicitly ask for something or I completely imagine some implied expectation. It can be a pretty exhausting way to live, but somehow I think I’ve been able to lie to myself that it was possible until this last baby came along.
In the mire of daily burnout, then weekly burnout, then monthly discussions of how this feels like the end of the world, I’ve had a few important realizations.
One harks back to some distant conversation from when I was probably fourteen and my mother drew circles on a napkin. She explained that there are circles of intimacy and I choose who belongs where.
The smallest, most intimate circle is simply me and my Creator. The next, she explained, would be my spouse — the most influential and important person in my life, around whom my adult identity would be built and with whom I would share the most time, energy and depth of myself.
After that would be parents, siblings, children and any friends I chose to invite into that circle. Those people would also speak heavily into my life and have some of the largest roles in who I become over time. And the circles further out are progressively less intimate and influential.
I had a friend in school whom I trusted without question — someone I considered in my inner circle. One day I privately complained about someone and this friend went straight to them and told them what I had said. I was floored, embarrassed and a little wiser. I realized then how easy it is to remove people (or they remove themselves) from an inner circle; my friend jumped straight to the acquaintance circle for a while until we ironed things out and came to a new understanding.
Because building trust takes time and breaking it can happen in an instant, it’s a much slower process to add people to those inner circles than it is to loosen the bonds and let them float back to a lower circle of intimacy in your life.
Circumstances in my life have led me to hang on as long as I can to real or imagined intimacy with some people. For that reason, I tend to let dying or toxic relationships linger if I’m not paying attention to their effects. For some people, it’s much easier to let go of intimate relationships than it is to keep them, and because of that, they end up feeling alone more than they feel known and loved. There are many points along that spectrum, but both ways of managing intimacy have their consequences and the methods we use to choose our closest relationships can change over time.
I once had a friend who never seemed to be excited about life and found ways to be unhappy no matter what came around. As an incurable optimist, I spent a lot of energy and mental effort trying to make things fine for them. Not only was that impossible, it also dragged me down and altered my outlook over time.
I finally couldn’t live with that and let that friendship go. It took some time, but I’ve come to realize that if I don’t pay attention to the kinds of people I let into the inner circle, I start becoming someone I didn’t intend to morph into.
Perhaps this has led to my “purposefulness” mantra. Anymore, I find I don’t want to waste what time I have investing in relationships that oppose the values I live by and are inevitably doomed to fail.
This is never an overnight choice, but rather one that takes time and careful observation. I watch how people make choices, their level of integrity and the fruit of their decisions because, to me, those things are important indicators of character. My mother reminded me a few years ago that my circumstances are the sum of a million tiny decisions I made over many years, and I think it’s true of my relationships.
I don’t want to be in a place where I’m just managing whatever’s been tossed in my lap. I want to have some direction and a vision for where I want to be, both in circumstances and relationships. The way I see it, every relationship in my life bolsters some facet of my identity.
I want to become the best me I can be and so much of that is helping others to be the best people they can be. So both by my own choice and the nature of influence, the time and energy I spend on my inner circles directly affect how the rest of their relationships function.
It’s a good reminder that I have a purpose to fulfill and there is always a reverberating effect.